Who knows whether it was a last gasp of summer freedom, or the new mask-optional policy, or the result of simple pandemic fatigue. Whatever the reason, for the opening of the BSO’s subscription season on Thursday night, Symphony Hall was more crowded than I’ve seen it since before the pandemic. Even if this was just a temporary uptick, it was a welcome sight to behold.
The concert began festively with “A Toast!” by John Williams, written in 2014 to honor the appointment of Andris Nelsons as the BSO’s music director but not publicly performed until now. A bright, three-minute fanfare scored for brass and percussion with a master’s precision; it rings out rousingly in all the right places. Nelsons is hardly the kind of conductor to raise a toast to himself (and there are plenty), but after welcoming the audience from the stage, he gamely directed the BSO’s brass section, which sounded immaculate.
The evening’s guest soloist was the veteran pianist Awadagin Pratt, making what I was surprised to learn was his BSO debut. He did so not with the flashy repertoire of a typical competition winner gunning to be the next Lang Lang (who, by the way, will be dropping by the BSO’s gala on Saturday) but with the BSO’s first-ever performance of Bach’s Keyboard Concerto in A, BWV 1055.
Pratt’s Bach was lively, supple, and, especially in the Larghetto, generous in its songful musicality. His tempos in the outer movements were brisk yet still dignified. With the exception of a few moments of ensemble drift, Nelsons was a sensitive accompanist. The textures he drew from the strings, however, did catch the ear with their unconventional fullness, a sound indebted to an older symphonic approach to Bach that has not aged well.
Still, the Bach made a felicitous pairing with Jessie Montgomery’s “Rounds,” a work scored for similar forces and premiered earlier this year. In her comments from the stage, Montgomery, who is also a violinist, explained that she has played a lot of chamber music with Pratt over the years, and came to think of “Rounds,” her first work for piano, as less of a concerto than as an extension of their ongoing chamber music.
Inspired by patterns in nature, from fractals to the routes of migratory birds, “Rounds” takes the form of nesting Rondos interrupted by a big virtuoso cadenza. Perhaps also inspired by Bach, the work begins with fast, motoric, pattern-based lines in the solo part, set against broad, emphatic ensemble writing in the strings. Montgomery keeps the listener’s ear alert and engaged, with subsequent sections built around a sequence of striking, deeply gnarled chords, or quietly drawn gossamer textures from the strings. Her music has a narrative flair and structural clarity that allowed the audience, so it seemed, to follow her every step of the way. Pratt’s imaginative, boldly profiled playing was the icing on the cake.
After intermission Nelsons led the BSO in “The Planets,” Gustav Holst’s well-traveled essay in orchestral astrology, famous especially for its brilliant depiction of “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity.” The orchestra played virtuosically for him throughout, though some movements burned more brightly and were more sharply characterized than others. The Suite ends not with a bang but with the undulating melodies and offstage female voices of the planet Neptune. In this case, it was the members of Boston’s own Lorelei Ensemble who sang from the first-floor hallway, capping Holst’s interstellar voyage with their ethereal tones, drifting off into the sky.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
Andris Nelsons, conductor
At Symphony Hall, Sept. 22